Will maritime-border settlement imply Lebanon’s indirect recognition of Israel?

Analysis Will maritime-border settlement imply Lebanon’s indirect recognition of Israel?
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A poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is seen at the ruins of the former Israeli-run prison of Khiam (Khiyam) on the Lebanese-Israeli border on May 25, 2022. (AFP)
Analysis Will maritime-border settlement imply Lebanon’s indirect recognition of Israel?
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Hezbollah has threatened to attack Israel if a deal acceptable to Lebanon was not reached by a clear deadline. (AFP)
Analysis Will maritime-border settlement imply Lebanon’s indirect recognition of Israel?
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Hezbollah has threatened to attack Israel if a deal acceptable to Lebanon was not reached by a clear deadline. (AFP)
Analysis Will maritime-border settlement imply Lebanon’s indirect recognition of Israel?
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Hezbollah has threatened to attack Israel if a deal acceptable to Lebanon was not reached by a clear deadline. (AFP)
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Updated 21 October 2022

Will maritime-border settlement imply Lebanon’s indirect recognition of Israel?

Will maritime-border settlement imply Lebanon’s indirect recognition of Israel?
  • Hezbollah complicit in US-brokered process despite its leader’s rejection of talks with the ‘Zionist enemy’
  • Gap between Nasrallah’s rhetoric and reality calls into question his much vaunted commitment to “resistance”

DUBAI: Comments recently made by a White House official to Al-Arabiya point to progress in indirect negotiations between Lebanon and Israel to find a solution to their maritime boundary dispute. But any progress raises a host of questions that Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia which holds sway over the Lebanese government, will find deeply embarrassing.

Technically at war since 1948 and with no diplomatic relations, Lebanon and Israel are at odds over an area of 860 sq km of the Mediterranean Sea believed to contain rich deposits of natural gas. They have been engaged in intermittent negotiations since October 2020 over the gas-rich waters they both claim to lie in their exclusive economic zones.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has proposed a compromise solution, which would create an S-shaped maritime economic boundary between the two countries. Amos Hochstein, the US senior adviser for energy security, told Al-Hurra TV in June that a proposal Lebanese officials presented to him will enable negotiations “to go forward.”

In recent months, Hochstein, in his capacity as the special presidential coordinator on the border deal, has made multiple trips to Beirut and Tel Aviv.

“We continue to narrow the gaps between the parties and believe a lasting compromise is possible,” the unnamed White House official told Al-Arabiya this week. The official praised what he called the “consultative spirit” of both parties.

The optimistic assessment came against a backdrop of seemingly coordinated anti-Israel posturing by Lebanese government officials and their coalition ally, Hezbollah. Michel Aoun, the Lebanese president, and his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) have maintained a strategic alliance with Hezbollah since 2006 that has enabled them to fill public and administrative institutions with loyalists.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun (R) meeting with US special envoy Amos Hochstein (C) and US Ambassador Dorothy Shea in Baabda, east of Beirut, on June 14, 2022. (DALATI AND NOHRA photo via AFP)

The understanding between the leading Lebanese Christian and Shiite parties has been tested at times by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s warlike rhetoric and broadsides against Lebanon’s traditional Arab allies. But with the ongoing negotiations with Israel, Hezbollah’s much vaunted commitment to “resistance,” its political strength and even its relevance have been called into question.

“Hezbollah accuses all its opponents of being Zionist and imperialist agents. So, any occasion to prove it wrong is welcome,” Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese economist and political commentator, told Arab News. “That said, this is one of the rare instances where the presence of Hezbollah possibly strengthens the Lebanese negotiation position.”



Hezbollah has threatened to attack Israel if a deal acceptable to Lebanon is not reached by a clear deadline. In early July, it dispatched drones twice toward the Karish gas field — where Israel has a drilling site — three of which were shot down by the Israeli military.

Although the drones were unarmed, they demonstrated Hezbollah’s ability to strike the offshore facility and up the ante in the US-mediated negotiations with Israel. In recent months, Israel has also repeatedly accused Hezbollah of impeding UN peacekeepers stationed along the Lebanon-Israel border from performing their duties.

UNIFIL and Lebanese military vehicles on guard at the demarcation of the maritime frontier between the Israel and Lebanon, in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqura. (AFP file photo)

Still, Hezbollah is said to privately want to avoid another conflict at a time Lebanon is going through a crippling economic crisis that has plunged more than three-quarters of its population into poverty. The last war it fought with Israel, 16 years ago, left nearly 1,200 Lebanese — mostly civilians — dead, pushing large swathes of the country into ruins.

“To be sure, Hezbollah can obstruct the negotiations any time and they hold the process hostage,” Shehadi told Arab News. “The theatrics of sending drones to take photos of the Israeli gas installations were in keeping with its approach.”

The Lebanese government officials whose histrionics too made headlines recently were Walid Fayyad, the energy minister, and Hector Hajjar, the social affairs minister, with their act of throwing rocks toward Israeli territory.

The duo, both linked to Aoun’s FPM, were part of a group of eight Lebanese ministers who were on a border-area tour. In the video, which went viral after it was broadcast by Al-Jadeed TV, Fayyad and Hajjar could be heard teasing each other about their rock-throwing abilities.

Lebanon's Minister for Social Affairs Hector Hajjar (R) throws a stone while Energy Minister Walid Fayyad (L) watches during a visit to the southern border with Israel on August 30, 2022. (AFP)

Fayyad, who in the clip tells Hajjar to “step aside, so I won’t hit your head,” is a frequent interlocutor for the Lebanese government during the discussions with Hochstein on the boundary dispute with Israel. Michael Young, a senior editor with Carnegie Middle East in Beirut, surmises that the two ministers’ actions may have something to do with the upcoming presidential election to find a successor to Aoun.

“I am not sure if it was planned that way, but the effect was showing that they stood with the ‘resistance against Israel,’” he told Arab News.

Shehadi concurred, saying that “everyone is playing along, including the cabinet ministers”, adding: “The new independent MPs who visited the border danced the (Levantine folk dance) dabke there. It’s all part of a subtle internal Lebanese political dialogue.”

To Shehadi, the scenes on the border were reminiscent of the period immediately after the Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in May 2000, when Lebanese politicians joined in the theatrics of the “liberation by the resistance.”

Lebanese high school students dance at Fatima Gate in Lebanon's southern border town of Kfar Kila on June 2, 2000 to celebrate the Israeli army pullout. (AFP)

“The circumstances of the withdrawal were well known. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had promised in July 1999 to withdraw to the international border and it was a fulfillment of that pledge,” Shehadi told Arab News. “The withdrawal was coordinated between Israel and Hezbollah with the help of two Swedish mediators.”

This time around, Lebanese analysts are watching closely for any political fallout of the obvious gap between the rhetoric and actions of Nasrallah in the context of the Lebanon-Israel negotiations.

Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, the regime in Tehran and its Shiite proxies have relied on a formula of seeking to co-opt the Palestinian resistance to increase their moral standing in the Arab world. They have intervened in neighboring countries, and justified this as necessary to liberate Palestine with such cross-sectarian slogans as “The path to Jerusalem passes through Karbala.”

As part of the same playbook, Hezbollah has constantly tried to portray itself as a pan-Islamic force fighting, first and foremost, for the Palestinian cause, determined to liberate Jerusalem from “Zionist occupation” while accusing Arabs of abandoning the holy city.

Hezbollah (yellow) and Amal (green) supporters demonstrate near the Israeli-Lebanese border, with graffiti depicting Iran's slain "Quds Force" commander Qasem Soleimani in Lebanon's southern town of Kfar Kila on May 25, 2022. (AFP)

In a speech in Beirut’s suburbs in 1998, Nasrallah reportedly called for the assassination of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for signing peace treaties with Israel by invoking the example of the killer of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. “Is there no Palestinian who can do what Khaled Islambouli did and say that Arafat’s presence on the face of this Earth is shameful to Palestinians and Muslims?” Nasrallah had thundered.

As recently as in August 2020, he was fulminating against the signing of the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE. “This is a betrayal of Islam and Arabism, it is a betrayal of Jerusalem, of the Palestinian people,” he said during a speech commemorating the anniversary of the end of Hezbollah’s 2006 conflict with Israel.

Fast forward to September 2022 and, as Michael Young, the Carnegie Middle East editor, puts it, “Hezbollah today is engaged in indirection negotiations with Israel.”

Supporters of Lebanon's Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah attend a rally to listen to the speech off Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in the southern city of Nabatiyeh on May 9, 2022. (AFP)

“To an extent, Hassan Nasrallah’s upping the ante is to show that they are not negotiating indirectly with Israel, signing what may be a deal on offshore gas sharing. But no one doubts that they are negotiating indirectly with Israel,” he told Arab News.

“At the same time, Hezbollah needs to show its domestic supporters that it’s still anti-Israel, hence the escalation of threats and criticism of Israel if Lebanon’s gas rights are not respected.”

But if a deal materializes, sooner or later, will Hezbollah tie its own hands by neutralizing the “resistance” and saying that Israel has respected all its commitments to Lebanon? “Hezbollah’s view is much wider than that,” Young said. “As long as there’s an enemy, the resistance must continue. This is not the official view of the Lebanese government but it is implied in all Hezbollah statements.”

Israeli navy vessels patrol along the coast of Rosh Hanikra, an area at the border between Israel and Lebanon (Ras al-Naqura), on June 6, 2022. AFP)

Young believes that at this stage, Hezbollah does not want to negotiate the entire sea and land border. “The focus now is on the maritime border. I don’t believe there’s willingness to negotiate anything dealing with the contested border, the Shebaa Farms,” he told Arab News, referring to a small strip of land occupied by Israel since 1967.

“(But) the UN says the occupation ended with the Israelis’ withdrawal in 2000. The Lebanese position on Shebaa Farms is not the same as that of the Israelis or the UN.”

As for the negotiations over the maritime dispute, Young says if media reports are any guide, the Biden administration has been putting pressure on both Lebanon and Israel and there are signs of progress.

“I don’t think we can rule out an agreement,” he told Arab News. “I think all sides have an interest in one and we are moving to a potential agreement.”

According to the White House official who spoke to Al-Arabiya, Hochstein is in communication daily with both Israeli and Lebanese government officials.


Jailed ex-Sudanese president a hospitalised - lawyer

Jailed ex-Sudanese president a hospitalised - lawyer
Updated 13 sec ago

Jailed ex-Sudanese president a hospitalised - lawyer

Jailed ex-Sudanese president a hospitalised - lawyer

KHARTOUM: Jailed former Sudanese president Omar Bashir has been admitted to hospital, his lawyer said on Sunday.
Hashim Abu-Bakr did not specify what condition Bashir was being treated for.

Two killed as demonstrators storm governor’s office in southern Syria

Two killed as demonstrators storm governor’s office in southern Syria
Updated 05 December 2022

Two killed as demonstrators storm governor’s office in southern Syria

Two killed as demonstrators storm governor’s office in southern Syria

JEDDAH: Dozens of demonstrators angry over worsening economic conditions in Syria stormed and ransacked the governor’s office in the southern city of Sweida on Sunday, clashing with police, the authorities and witnesses said.

Earlier, more than 200 people had gathered around the building in the center of the Druze-majority city, chanting slogans calling for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad, they said, amid spiraling prices and economic hardship.

“Down with Assad,” the crowd chanted. Anti-government protests in state-controlled areas in Syria are not tolerated and rare.

Syria’s pro-regime media said tens of “outlaws” stormed the governor’s office and burned files and official papers.

The Ministry of Interior said they had also tried to seize the city’s police headquarters, and that one policeman was killed in the ensuing clashes.

“We will pursue all the outlaws and take all legal measures against anyone who dares to undermine the security and stability of the province,” the regime’s statement said.

Three witnesses told Reuters the governor was not in the building which was vacated before protesters stormed and ransacked offices.

“The governor’s office was burnt completely from the inside,” said Rayan Maarouf, a civic activist and editor of Suwayda 24, a local website that covers the southern region, who said several people were wounded in the exchange of gunshots.

“There was heavy gunfire,” Maarouf told Reuters, saying it was not clear from where the shooting came in the heavily policed area.

A source in the city hospital said one civilian who was being treated had died from gunshot wounds while another was still in hospital after being shot.

Sweida province has been spared the violence seen in other parts of Syria since the start of the over-decade long conflict that began after pro-democracy protests erupted against Assad’s family rule were violently crushed by security forces.

The minority Druze sect, whose faith draws its roots from Islam, have long resisted being drawn into the Syrian conflict.

Many community leaders and top Druze religious leaders have refused to sanction enlistment in the army.

Syria is in the throes of a deep economic crisis where a majority of people after a devastating conflict that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions struggle to afford food and basic goods.

Witnesses in Sweida told Reuters that once inside the building, demonstrators brought down pictures of Assad.

GCC education bureau to partner with Jordanian teaching academy

GCC education bureau to partner with Jordanian teaching academy
Updated 05 December 2022

GCC education bureau to partner with Jordanian teaching academy

GCC education bureau to partner with Jordanian teaching academy
  • Agreement outlines plans for joint professional development programs

RIYADH: Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Assimi, director general of the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States, and Dr. Osama Obeidat, CEO of Jordan’s Queen Rania Teacher Academy, signed an agreement to strengthen partnership through teacher training, exchanging expertise and establishing joint programs for professional development, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday. 

The move is in line with the ABEGS framework on boosting cooperation with specialized organizations and institutions.


Morocco reaps cash, clout from fertilizer supply shock

Morocco reaps cash, clout from fertilizer supply shock
Updated 04 December 2022

Morocco reaps cash, clout from fertilizer supply shock

Morocco reaps cash, clout from fertilizer supply shock

RABAT: A global fertilizer supply shock deepened by Russia’s Ukraine invasion has brought boom times for the North African phosphate superpower Morocco and earned the country new diplomatic capital.

Rabat is using the leverage especially in the decades-old fight over the disputed desert territory of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony also claimed by Algeria-backed rebels, analysts say.

Morocco is set to chalk up record revenues for a second year running as farmers worldwide scramble for phosphate, made scarce by sanctions against top world producer Russia and a Chinese ban on exports.

Phosphate is a key ingredient of artificial fertilizers, which are vital for industrial agriculture and global grain supplies despite the long-term damage they inflict on soil and groundwater.

“It’s a strategic mineral for the future because it’s crucial for global food security,” said Abderrahim Handouf, an agricultural policy expert.

“As populations grow, fertilizers are the most effective way to increase farm productivity.”

According to Morocco’s state-owned phosphates firm OCP, the country controls around 31 percent of the international trade in the substance.

The OCP, which holds a national monopoly in the trade, is on track to record more than 131 billion dirhams ($12.4 billion) in revenue this year, up 56 percent on 2021 — already a bumper year.

Even before the start of the year, prices had been edging higher as the world emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic and market leaders like China imposed export restrictions, said sector expert Mounir Halim.

There was also “strong demand from India, one of the world’s biggest importers, which had exhausted its stocks,” Halim said.

Then as Western powers imposed sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, prices of fertilizer shot up.

That made Morocco a vital alternative supplier. 

The kingdom’s exports of phosphates and their derivatives jumped by two thirds year-on-year in the first nine months of 2022, according to the latest official figures.

Morocco has around 70 percent of the world’s phosphate reserves, and has been mining four sites since 1921, including in the disputed Western Sahara.

Morocco’s OCP has ramped up its production capacity by a factor of four since 2008, hitting 12 million tons last year, on target to reach 15 million by the end of 2023.

That makes it a major player in a global market fearful of further supply shocks.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned in a report this year that “fertilizer supplies remain restricted, stocks are depleted and geopolitical tensions could spark additional supply restrictions at short notice.”

The result is that Morocco is enjoying not only an influx of cash, but also growing diplomatic muscle, particularly on Western Sahara.

The kingdom sees the vast stretch of desert as an integral part of its territory, but the Polisario movement backed by Morocco’s arch-rival Algeria seeks independence there.

Rabat has placed the question at the heart of its diplomacy.

King Mohammed VI in August demanded that Morocco’s allies “clarify” their stances on the issue, calling it “the prism through which Morocco views its international environment.”

According to L’Economiste, a Moroccan French-language newspaper, OCP has become “the economic arm of Moroccan diplomacy.”

In September, Rabat recalled a shipment of 50,000 tons of fertilizer destined for Peru after Lima restored diplomatic relations with the Polisario’s self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

But as well as sticks, OCP offers carrots.

The firm has been expanding its presence across Africa, with branches in 16 countries, a fertilizer factory in Nigeria and a deal signed in September to open another one in Ethiopia.

Palestinian Santa brings festive cheer to Jerusalem

Palestinian Santa brings festive cheer to Jerusalem
Updated 04 December 2022

Palestinian Santa brings festive cheer to Jerusalem

Palestinian Santa brings festive cheer to Jerusalem

JERUSALEM: In Jerusalem’s Old City there are dozens of churches, but as Christmas beckons there is just one Santa Claus — a towering Palestinian former basketball player.

Each December, the streets sparkle green and red as Christian pilgrims and others arrive to celebrate Christmas in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Seven years ago one resident, Issa Kassissieh, transformed the ground floor of his 700-year-old home into a grotto, complete with candy, mulled wine and a chance to sit on Santa’s lap.

Welcoming the season’s first visitors to Santa House, the red-suited and bearded Kassissieh belted out a “Ho, ho, ho!” at families queueing to see him.

“We are dealing with many religions here in Jerusalem. We have Muslims, Christians and Jews. I have all religions come to my house. I open my hands to everybody,” said Kassissieh, himself a Christian.

Among the visitors were a group of Israeli tourists, as well as two priests who blessed the opening with prayers in Arabic and the ancient language of Aramaic.

At 1.9 meters tall, Kassissieh’s height served him well as captain of the Palestinian basketball squad, and does not seem to intimidate the children he towers over.

“I’m not a Christian, but I still love Santa Claus ... We have a (Christmas) tree at home too,” said eight-year-old Marwa, a Palestinian Muslim, grinning.

Visitors from around the world also lined up to sit on Santa’s lap, and to find out if they were on his naughty or nice list.

Alison Pargiter, from the US, waited with her children.

“It is important that our kids have fun, but we also want them to know the true story behind Christmas,” the 52-year-old said.

At Santa House, Kassissieh said his young visitors have more modern concerns.

“Every child asks me for an iPhone,” he chuckled.

“I never promise anything, but I say: ‘Let’s pray, and if you’re on my good list, you will get it’.”

As a child, Kassissieh’s father would dress up as Santa for him and his two sisters.

Fifteen years ago, he found his father’s suit and decided to slip into the red velvet role.

But it has involved more than just putting on a suit.

Since then, he has attended the World Santa Claus Congress in Denmark and studied at a Santa school — yes, there is such a thing — in the US state of Colorado.

Kassissieh displayed a certificate from another center of Santa learning, the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, and said his training makes him Jerusalem’s only accredited Santa.

Based in Michigan, the Howard school traces its establishment to 1937, making it the world’s longest-running.

In his role, he is all too aware of the sensitivities in Jerusalem.